The demonstration that took down East Germany
On November 4, 1989, a cabal of East German creatives and intellectuals demanded democratic reform. The result was an enormous demonstration that catalysed the fall of the Berlin Wall.
By November 1989, rumours had long been flying that change was inevitable in communist East Germany.
Citizens were turning their backs in droves on the politically and economically bankrupt state. Week after week in Leipzig, thousands demanded the right to travel without restrictions and freely express themselves. Even Erich Honecker, once the most powerful man in East Germany, relinquished his post as head of the communist party in October 1989 to quash public anger.
Then, everything came to a head on November 4 in East Berlin. Electrified by an emboldened public, a cabal of stage and screen actors organised a demonstration at Alexanderplatz, the center of the East German capital, to voice their concerns.
What ensued became the largest demonstration in the oppressive state’s history – and catalysed its demise just a few days later.
A crazy idea
A month prior to the demonstration, on October 7, actors with the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin, an institution known for pushing the bounds of artistry under communist rule, met for drinks.
It was not a happy gathering. That day, during a demonstration in Dresden that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the state’s founding, officers with the Stasi —East Germany’s secret police — had brutalised protesters.
It only added to tensions already coursing through the body politic. Resistant to capitalist reform, communist party leaders refused to abandon planned economic models, even though they were impossible to realise with the state’s crumbling industrial infrastructure. Conditions for East Germans worsened and resentment spiked, as citizens compared themselves to neighbouring West Germans who lived in Europe’s most thriving economy, reports at the time detailed.
A simple, but crazy idea swirled around the group: A state-sanctioned demonstration in the center of East Berlin to discuss “the context” of the state’s constitution, which technically granted citizens the right to protest and freely express themselves.
To the group’s surprise, the ailing state approved the request on November 1.
‘D’ for ‘democracy,’ not for ‘Deutschland.’
A ripple turned into a flood
More than 20 artists, novelists, actors and academics signed up to speak at a makeshift podium and stage fashioned atop a parked truck at Alexanderplatz.
East Berliners and Germans from all over the country became energised by the prospect of a state-sanctioned protest — public dissent was usually a dangerous proposition. People flooded the streets with placards that demanded a public say in policymaking, while theater troupes from around the city took the opportunity to perform politically charged satire.
With onlookers numbering as high as 1 million, according to some estimates, the state’s most revered figures took the stage.
“It’s as if someone has thrown open the windows after all these years of stagnation, after years of dullness and mustiness, of phrase-mongering and bureaucratic despotism,” declared Stefan Heym, a novelist, during his speech.
“I have difficulties in calling this a ‘turning point,'” Christa Wolf, one of the most famed writers to emerge out of East Germany, told the crowd. “I’d rather speak of revolutionary renewal.”
Beginning of the end
To everyone’s surprise, high-ranking members of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) also took the stage, despite boos from onlookers.
Günter Schabowski, head of the SED in Berlin, asked the crowd: “What moves a communist at this moment at the sight of hundreds of thousands?” His response rang in harmony with the demands of the demonstrators: “Only he who hears and understands admonition is capable of a new beginning.”
For Erich Mielke, chief of the secret police, the new beginning marked by the protest meant the possibility of an end to the East German state. He bolstered troops along the Berlin Wall in the days leading up to the demonstration in the event that it would lead to “attacks on national borders,” reports after the fact detailed.
But such predictions never came to fruition. The three-hour demonstration, live streamed on East German television and reported on across the world, remained peaceful. Reports even went so far as to call the event “a human steamroller” and declared that “the wheel of history cannot turn back!”
Indeed, five days later, the East German government caved to demonstrators’ demands and allowed citizens to freely exit the country — a move that prompted the demolition of the Berlin Wall.
“But for me, November 4 remains a more important date than the opening of the wall on November 9,” theologian Friedrich Schorlemmer, who spoke at the demonstration, told German newspaper Tagesspiegel almost 15 years later. “Because at Alexanderplatz, ‘D’ stood first and foremost for ‘democracy,’ not for ‘Deutschland.'”
Germany 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall Focus on Europe
30 Years after the fall of the Berlin wall a shadow looms over Europe
Today as in much of mainland Europe the far right are gaining power with a rise in populist movements Germany’s Angela Merkel has vows to fight right-wing extremist terrorism.
This comes days after Dresden The German city that declared a ‘Nazi emergency’, saying it has a serious problem with the far-right.
Dresden, the capital of Saxony, has long been viewed as a bastion of the far-right and is the birthplace of the anti-Islam Pegida movement.
Councillors in the city – a contender for the 2025 European Capital of Culture – have now approved a resolution saying more needs to be done to tackle the issue.
What is a ‘Nazi emergency’?
“‘Nazinotstand’ means – similar to the climate emergency – that we have a serious problem. The open democratic society is threatened,” local councillor Max Aschenbach, who tabled the motion, told the BBC.
Mr Aschenbach, from left-leaning satirical political party Die Partei, said he believed it was necessary to take action because politicians were not doing enough to “position themselves clearly” against the far-right.
Dresden is where the the PEGIDA movement (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) first emerged in 2013, and regular rallies are still held in the city.
Anti-immigrant sentiment runs high in the state of Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital: The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) won 27.5% of the vote in this year’s state election.
The AfD became the first far-right party to enter Germany’s national parliament in almost 60 years when it came in third place overall in federal elections in 2017.
Aschenbach said his resolution, which was put forward to show commitment to a “democratic, open, pluralistic society,” was put to a vote by Dresden’s city council on Wednesday, and passed by 39 votes to 29.
“For years, politicians have failed to position themselves clearly and unequivocally against the right-wing extremists, and to outlaw them,” Aschenbach said, adding that he wanted Dresden’s city council to support citizens’ initiatives, education and culture in the city.